Sunday, September 24, 2017


By Roger Ebert

"Dog Day Afternoon" runs a little longer than the average feature, and you think maybe they could have cut an opening montage of life in New York. But no. These shots, stolen from reality, establish a bedrock for the film. It's "naturalistic," says the director, Sidney Lumet. I think he means it has the pace and feel of everyday life. When you begin with the story of a man who sticks up a bank to finance his lover's sex change, when you have a situation that has attracted hundreds of cops and millions of TV viewers, you run the risk of making a side show. "Dog Day Afternoon" never makes that mistake. The characters are all believable, sympathetic, convincing. We care for them. In a film about cops and robbers, there are no bad guys. Just people trying to get through a summer afternoon that has taken a strange turn.

It's an actor's picture. Lumet and his editor, Dede Allen, take the time to allow the actors to live within the characters; we forget we're watching performances. Although the movie contains tragedy and the potential for greater tragedy, it is also tremendously funny. But Frank Pierson's Oscar-winning screenplay never pauses for a laugh; the laughter grows organically out of people and situations. You can believe that even with hostages taken and firearms being waved around, such elements of human comedy would nevertheless arise.

One of the funny moments comes at the beginning, when three robbers enter a bank but one of them chickens out and says he can't go through with it. "Stevie," says his partner Sonny, "don't take the car." "But how am I gonna get home?" Stevie whines. Is that real? Yes, because you believe that Stevie would in fact have driven himself home and that Sonny (Al Pacino) would think of that.
Pacino has said the most memorable moment in the movie involves the delivery boy (Lionel Pina) who brings pizza to the robbers and their hostages. He's been watching the drama unfold on live TV, and when he's applauded by the crowd, he does a little skip and jump and says, "I'm a star!" 

Television turns the moment into what, at that time, was a fairly new event for live broadcasting. Sonny expands in the TV lights, strutting back and forth in front of the bank and unwisely exposing himself to rooftops lined with snipers. His remaining partner Sal (John Cazale), on the other hand, shrinks within himself. He can't believe he's a bank robber. He can't believe Sonny says he will kill people. He's offended that on TV, which has the facts a little confused, he's described as a homosexual. He can't believe he's expected to get on a jet with the others and fly to safety. He's never flown before. Asked to name a foreign country they can fly to, he says "Wyoming." The line was improvised on the spot by Cazale.

The movie take place almost entirely within a bank branch and the barbershop across the street, which becomes the police and FBI "command center." Back and forth Lumet's camera moves, on a shuttle of negotiations. The side view down the street in either direction shows their escape route, until it's blocked by a crowd that quickly forms and becomes a character in itself. At one point, making threats on the sidewalk, Pacino shouts "Attica," referring to the infamous massacre of prisoners in an upstate prison. "Attica!" the crowd shouts back, without prompting. They never see Sal, who is trembling, pale, sweaty, frightened. They respond to Sonny, first as a hero and then (when they find out he's gay) with jeers.

Sonny is gay, along with many other things. He is also a son whose mother mercilessly criticizes him, a husband and father whose wife (Judith Malina) won't let him get a word in edgewise. Asked why she didn't come to the bank when he asked for her, she explains on the phone, "I couldn't get a baby-sitter." She and her husband speak the same New York dialect. Denying that her husband could possibly have robbed a bank, she says: "He mighta done it, his body functions mighta done it, but he, himself, he didn't do it."

Sonny is many things and wants to be all things. The writer Pierson, unable to interview the robber in the real-life story, says he found the key for the character after being told Sonny was the kind of man "who would take care of you." He walks into the bank, waving the rifle but also saying, "I'm a Catholic and I don't want to hurt anyone, understand?" He listens when a teller has to use the toilet and is worried about the bank guard with asthma. He often says, "I'm dyin' here," because the problems of the tellers become his problems.

The most colorful of the tellers is their head, Sylvia (Penelope Allen), who cares for her "girls." Outside the bank and free to escape, she goes back inside: She's staying because she enjoys being the center of attention. "He don't have a plan," she says of Sonny. "It's all a whim." She may be right. Sal certainly has no idea what Sonny is capable of. In an interview on the disc of extras, I learned that Sonny met Sal in a Greenwich Village bar and didn't even really know him very well. We sense that when Sal starts trembling when he learns they'll leave the country by air. "You said if it went wrong, we'd kill ourselves!" he protests. He'd rather die than fly.

More than halfway through the picture, the other key character appears. This is Leon (Chris Sarandon), Sonny's lover. He is adamant: He certainly never asked Sonny to rob a bank to pay for his sex change. Brought into the barbershop and put on the phone with Sonny, he indirectly reveals his emotional inner life. He was in a mental institution. He and Sonny are drifting apart. He can't keep up with Sonny's emotional needs. He sits in the barbershop and talks to Sonny on the phone. This conversation was written as two monologues, Pierson says, and intercut into an exchange that essentially won Sarandon his supporting actor Oscar nomination. Throughout the film, neither man exhibits gay stereotypes. Leon is vulnerable and easily wounded, but not a drama queen. Pacino is matter of fact; in a scene when he dictates his last will to the bank manager (Sully Boyar), he says he loves Leon "more than any man ever loved any other man." He states this as a matter of fact; there's not a whisper of gay spin to it, and indeed even his wife and mother tacitly accept his bisexuality as simply the way he is.

The cops and FBI agents are instrumental to the film, but less fully developed than the people in the bank. Charles Durning plays the NYPD officer in charge, and James Broderick is the chief FBI agent. Neither one is given the kinds of plot elements that usually come with cops in hostage movies. They're unburdened by standard subplots (trouble at home, a conflict with a superior) and just do their jobs; afraid that a bloodbath will erupt, Durning actually runs at cops who won't holster their weapons. Both are matter of fact, direct, playing their roles right down the center. Many of Broderick's most essential moments come in reaction shots. They help demonstrate Lumet's naturalistic approach.

 Sidney Lumet is a master filmmaker. His book on directing joins David Mamet's as two contrasting approaches to the subject, both written with clarity and conviction. Starting young by directing live TV, Lumet launched his big screen career with "12 Angry Men," based on one of his TV productions. His subjects have ranged widely; he clearly cares for the story above all else and doesn't specialize in genres or themes. If he's known for one aspect of his broad creative career, it is films about New York, including "The Pawnbroker," "Bye Bye Braverman," "Serpico" (also starring Pacino), "Q&A," "Network" and the suburban "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead." Here he has created a film made brilliant by its deeply seen characters, in a plot that could have obviously been cheapened and exploited but is always human and true.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

THE IMITATION GAME - Background and Reflection

8 things you didn’t know about Alan Turing

An English mathematician, logician and cryptographer, Alan Turing was responsible for breaking the Nazi Enigma code during World War II. His work gave the Allies the edge they needed to win the war in Europe, and led to the creation of the computer. On the PBS NewsHour tonight, Jeffrey Brown interviews Benedict Cumberbatch about his role as Turing in “The Imitation Game.”

Turing took his own life in 1954, two years after being outed as gay. Homosexuality was still a crime in Great Britain at the time, and Turing was convicted of “indecency.” He died from eating an apple laced with cyanide. He was only 41 years old.

At the time of his death, the public had no idea what he had contributed to the war effort. Sixty years later, Queen Elizabeth II officially pardoned Turing.

Andrew Hodges, a mathematician at the Mathematical Institute at Oxford University, wrote the biography “Alan Turing: The Enigma”, which inspired the film. We spoke with Hodges this week about some things many people don’t know about Turing.

1. He was an Olympic-level runner

He participated in a few sports, such as rowing, but he loved running. Turing had “a bit of a ‘smelly trainers’ aspect” to his personality,” Hodges said. To work it into his day, he often ran to the places he needed to go. He used to run the 10 miles between the two places where he did most of his work, the National Physical Laboratory and the electronics building on Dollis Hill, beating colleagues who took public transportation to the office.

He joined running clubs, becoming a competitive amateur and winning several races. In 1948, his best marathon time was 2 hours 46 minutes 3 seconds — only 11 minutes slower than the Olympic winning time that year.

When one of his running club members asked why he trained so vehemently, he replied, “I have such a stressful job that the only way I can get it out of my mind is by running hard.”

2. He embodied some values of the Hippie movement

“He was a hippie before his time,” Hodges said. “He was very casual in those days, and thought very scruffy.” Had he lived a few decades later, he would have worn t-shirts and jeans every day, Hodges added.

It wasn’t uncommon to see Turing dressed rather shabbily, with bitten nails and without a tie, he said. With his youthful face, he was often mistaken for an undergraduate even in his 30s.

He also shared the left-leaning views of many of his Kings College compatriots, who included economists John Maynard Keynes and Arthur Cecil Pigou. Though Turing joined the Anti-War Movement in 1933, he never got deeply involved in politics. But watching Hitler’s rise to power in the late 1930s scared him, Hodges said, and it spurred his interest in cryptography, which would later help Great Britain in the war.

3. He got bad grades and frustrated his teachers

Science was a considered a second-class pursuit in English public schools in the 1920s, Hodges said. Turing’s passion for science embarrassed his mother, who had hoped he would study the classics, which was the most acceptable pursuit for gentlemen.

But he got bad to mediocre grades in school, followed by many complaints from his teachers. His English teacher wrote:

His math and science grades weren’t much better. He was nearly stopped from taking the national School Certificate exams on the subject, for fear he would fail.

4. The father of the computer also dabbled in physics, biology, chemistry and neurology

Turing’s most notable work today is as a computer scientist. In 1936, he developed the idea for the Universal Turing Machine, the basis for the first computer. And he developed a test for artificial intelligence in 1950, which is still used today.

But he also studied physics, especially as a young man. He read Einstein’s theory of relativity as a teenager, and immediately filled a notebook with his own thoughts and ideas on the subject. He dabbled in quantum mechanics, a new field at the time, as well as biology, chemistry and neurology after the war. Much of this work was related to creating machines that could learn and “think”, but some of it came out of simple curiosity about the world.

5. He developed a new field of biology out of his fascination with daisies

Even as a child, Turing saw life through the eyes of a scientist, Hodges said. There is a famous sketch of Turing as a boy “watching the daisies grow” while the other children play field hockey. That sketch would foreshadow Turing’s ground-breaking work in 1952 on morphogenesis, which became a completely new field of mathematical biology. It was a mathematical explanation of how things grow — a great mystery to science, Hodges explained. His work on the subject has been cited more than 8,000 times.

The subject of one of his seminal papers on the topic was called “Outline of the Development of the Daisy.”

6. He stuttered when talking

It is true that he had a bit of a stammer, something dramatic portrayals of Turing have exaggerated, Hodges said. He “took his time finding the right words,” he explained. In his biography he notes that a BBC radio producer had called Turing a very difficult person to interview for that reason.

7. He didn’t keep his sexuality a secret among friends

The laws at the time prevented Turing from being openly gay, but he never kept his sexuality secret either. He was open with his social circles at Kings College in Cambridge, which was “an oasis of acceptance” at the time, Hodges said. Many people would have clung to that oasis, he said, but Turing branched out to continue his work.

In 1952, he was arrested and charged with “indecency” after a brief relationship with another man. Defiant, he did not deny the charges.

“When he was arrested, the first thing he said was he thought that this shouldn’t be against the law,” Hodges said. “He gave a statement that was unapologetic, that detailed what had happened.”

8. He refused to let a punishment of chemical castration stop him from working

The punishment for homosexuality was chemical castration, a series of hormone injections that left Turing impotent. It also caused gynecomastia, giving him breasts. But Turing refused to let the treatment sway him from his work, keeping up his lively spirit.

“He dealt with it with as much humor and defiance as you could muster,” Hodges said. “To his close friends, it was obvious it was traumatic. But in no way did he just succumb and decline. He really fought back … by insisting on continuing work as if nothing had happened.”

He openly talked about the trial, even in the “macho environment” of the computer lab. He mocked the law’s absurdity. In defiance, he traveled abroad to Norway and the Mediterranean, where the gay rights movements were budding.

Homosexuality was considered a security risk at the time, and the conviction cost Turing his security clearance. That was a harsh blow, and Hodges believes that when he was restricted from leaving the country anymore, it ultimately led Turing to suicide.

“After he’d been revealed as gay in 1952, he couldn’t do any more secret work,” Hodges said. “It would have been hard to accept that he was not trusted.”


Tuesday, September 12, 2017


As the product of a stern religious upbringing by a Lutheran minister father, the great Swedish director Ingmar Bergman has had a preoccupation with life's greater questions as a thematic constant throughout his prolific and distinguished body of work. By the late '50s to early '60s, his films were consistently steeped in queries regarding the existence of God and man's place in the universe. His most profoundly realized work of the period, The Seventh Seal (1957), became a global art house favorite and staked his claim amongst the giants of world cinema.

Throughout his life, Bergman had never forgotten the images of Death that he had seen rendered in the frescoes of the ancient churches he had visited as a boy. Indeed, what would become the scenario for The Seventh Seal sprung from a 1955 one-act play he had authored and produced entitled Wood Painting. Bergman had his doubts that he could ever have such a personal project financed, but he was enjoying the clout of his recent jury prize award at Cannes for Smiles of a Summer Night (1955). Bergman's producer Carl Anders Dymling agreed to back the shoot under the proviso that it would conclude in thirty-five days - a condition that Bergman, amazingly, fulfilled.

The narrative opens on the shores of medieval Sweden, where the noble knight Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) and his earthy squire Jons (Gunnar Bjornstrand) are slowly making their way home after an ultimately futile decade spent away at the Crusades. The dispirited travelers have returned to find the populace of the country becoming decimated by the Black Plague. Having stopped for a respite, Block is confronted by a cloaked, sallowfaced figure (Bengt Ekerot) personifying Death. The knight swiftly barters with the reaper for a delay of the inevitable, challenging him to a game of chess with his reprieve as the prize.

As they play, Block unsuccessfully tries to wheedle the truth regarding ultimate destiny from his opponent, with no success. The game becomes temporarily tabled, and Block and Jons continue on to the knight's castle keep. The story's focus then shifts to a trio of traveling entertainers who are finding declining interest in their services; the impish juggler Jof (Nils Poppe), his gently loving wife Mia (Bibi Andersson), and the undependable rake Skat (Erik Strandmark). Ultimately, circumstances bind their travels to those of the knight and squire, as they encounter ever more disquieting evidence of the physical and moral blight sweeping the land.

Despite the foreboding narrative of The Seventh Seal, Bergman is still able to leaven it with comic touches, as shown in the consequences of Skat's cuckolding of a blustering blacksmith (Ake Fridell), and the moving serenity of the sequence when Block gratefully responds to the entertainers' gracious sharing of their simple fare. Throughout the journey, Death sporadically appears to Block, continuing their play until he has him in check. Block implores Jof and Mia to depart, and his final acceptance brings The Seventh Seal to its now-familiar closing image.

Amazingly enough, this most famous of sequences was devised completely off the cuff in the span of ten minutes. The unit was setting up another shot when the skies shifted so dramatically as to inspire Bergman and cinematographer Gunnar Fischer to shoot the "Dance of Death" sequence. Fridell, who had injured himself the night before, was unable to go on, and a member of the crew doubled for him in silhouette.

According to the biography, Ingmar Bergman by Peter Cowie, "The opening scene by the seashore and a few other hillside sequences were shot at Hovs Hallar, on the southwest coast of Sweden. Lennart Olsson had spent two weeks searching for the right spot. Hovs Hallar, with its sense of mountains coming literally down into the sea, struck Bergman as being exactly right. He also liked filming in the province of Skane because the light was so much softer than in the northern parts of the country."

The Seventh Seal boasts multiple strong performances by the cast, many of whom would be regarded as Bergman's repertory company. Von Sydow, only 27 at the filming and projecting a gravity years beyond, became an international star due to his portrayal of the warrior struggling with his faith. The pragmatic Bjornstrand provides the perfect counterpoint. The stage comedian Poppe strikes the right notes as the near-childlike Jof, and Andersson (Bergman dedicated the script to her) is luminous in portraying the devoted spouse. Fischer, who would lens over a dozen of Bergman's efforts from the late '40s through the early '60s, proved masterful in shifting from the stark to the serene as the story demanded.

By his own admission, Bergman utilized the spectre of the plague as a metaphor for the anxiety of nuclear war, and it should come as no surprise that the highbrows of the duck-and-cover generation were so quick to embrace The Seventh Seal. "Essentially intellectual, yet emotionally stimulating, too, it is as tough-and rewarding-a screen challenge as the moviegoer has had to face this year," Bosley Crowther declared in the New York Times' review of the day; this assessment has continued to hold true over the generations since.

Producer: Allan Ekelund
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Screenplay: Ingmar Bergman
Cinematography: Gunnar Fischer
Film Editing: Lennart Wallen
Art Direction: P.A. Lundgren
Music: Erik Nordgren
Cast: Gunnar Bjornstrand (Jons), Bengt Ekerot (Death), Nils Poppe (Jof), Max von Sydow (Antonius Block), Bibi
Andersson (Mia), Inga Gill (Lisa), Maud Hansson (Witch), Erik Strandmark (Jonas).

Sunday, October 9, 2016

"Singin' in the Rain" AN AMERICAN CLASSIC

Singin' in the Rain (1952) is one of the most-loved and celebrated film musicals of all time from MGM, before a mass exodus to filmed adaptations of Broadway plays emerged as a standard pattern. It was made directly for film, and was not a Broadway adaptation.
The joyous film, co-directed by Stanley Donen and acrobatic dancer-star-choreographer Gene Kelly, is a charming, up-beat, graceful and thoroughly enjoyable experience with great songs, lots of flashbacks, wonderful dances (including the spectacular Broadway Melody Ballet with leggy guest star Cyd Charisse), casting and story. This was another extraordinary example of the organic, 'integrated musical' in which the story's characters naturally express their emotions in the midst of their lives. Song and dance replace the dialogue, usually during moments of high spirits or passionate romance. And over half of the film - a 'let's put on a play' type of film, is composed of musical numbers.

This superb film, called "MGM's TECHNICOLOR Musical Treasure," was produced during MGM studios' creative pinnacle. From the late 1930s to the early 1960s, producer Arthur Freed produced more than forty musicals for MGM. The creative forces at the studio in the Freed Unit - composed of Freed, Vincente Minnelli, Stanley Donen, and actor/choreographer Gene Kelly - also collaborated together to produce such gems as Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), The Pirate (1948), On the Town (1949), Best Picture Oscar-winner a year earlier with director Vincente Minnelli - An American in Paris (1951), Royal Wedding (1951), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), and Gigi (1958).

Because the colorful, witty film is set in 1927, it humorously satirizes and parodies the panic surrounding the troubling transitional period from silents to talkies in the dream factory of Hollywood of the late 1920s as the sound revolution swept through. The film's screenplay, suggested by the song Singin' in the Rain that was written by Freed and Brown, was scripted by Betty Comden and Adolph Green (who also wrote On the Town (1949)). The time frame of Comden's and Green's script, the Roaring 20s Era of flappers, was mostly determined by the fact that lyricist Freed (and songwriter Nacio Herb Brown) had written their extensive library of songs in their early careers during the 1920s and 1930s, when Hollywood was transitioning to talkies. The musical comedy's story, then, would be best suited around that theme. Except for two songs, all of the musical arrangements in the film to be showcased were composed by Freed and Brown for different Hollywood films before Freed became a producer.

[The title song was originally created by lyricist Arthur Freed and composer Nacio Herb Brown for MGM's Hollywood Revue of 1929 (1929). The general storyline of the film was derived from Once in a Lifetime (1932), a hilarious adaptation of the Moss Hart-George S. Kaufman play also set during the time of panic surrounding Hollywood's transition to talkies.]

The plot of the film is actually an autobiography of Hollywood itself at the dawn of the talkies. The story is about a dashing, smug but romantic silent film star and swashbuckling matinee idol (Don Lockwood) and his glamorous blonde screen partner/diva (Lina Lamont) who are expected, by studio heads, to pretend to be romantically involved with each other. They are also pressured by the studio boss R.F. Simpson (Millard Mitchell) to change their silent romantic drama (The Duelling Cavalier) and make their first sound picture, renamed as the musical The Dancing Cavalier. There's one serious problem, however - the temperamental, narcissistic star has a shrill, screechy New York accent. The star's ex-song-and-dance partner (Cosmo) proposes to turn the doomed film into a musical, and suggests that Don's aspiring actress and ingenue dancer-girlfriend (Kathy Selden) dub in her singing voice behind the scenes for lip-synching Lina. The results of their scheming to expose the jealous Lina and put Kathy in a revealing limelight provide the film's expected happy resolution.

Surprisingly, this great film that was shot for a cost of $2.5 million (about $.5 million over-budget), was basically ignored by film critics when released and treated with indifference (with box-office of $7.7 worldwide). It received only two Academy Award nominations - Best Supporting Actress (Jean Hagen), and Best Musical Score (Lennie Hayton) and didn't win any awards. The film's musical score Oscar nomination lost to Alfred Newman's score for With a Song in My Heart.

Now, after many accolades, television screenings, and its resurgence after the release of That's Entertainment (1974), it is often chosen as one of the all-time top ten American films, and generally considered Hollywood's greatest and finest screen musical. Great care was made to authenticate the costumes, the sound studio set, and other historical details in the film. The film's title song was paid twisted homage (of sorts) in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971) during the brutal rape scene. At the same time that Singin' in the Rain was being filmed, another MGM film exposing and satirizing Hollywood's foibles was also in production - director Vincente Minnelli's melodramatic The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), starring Kirk Douglas and Lana Turner, and Oscar-stealing Gloria Grahame who defeated this film's Jean Hagen for the Best Supporting Actress honor.

Monday, September 12, 2016

The Aesthetics of Black and White and Color

Black and White and Technicolor in Hollywood's Golden Era

In the 1930s and 1940s cost was not the only factor determining which film stock a film project would employ. Hollywood Technicolor tended to be used to make everything pretty, so that the most serious dramas often tended to be black and white: Citizen Kane (1941), The Little Foxes (1941), the entire genre of film noir, and so on.

Black and White
It's extremely important to remember that black and white can be just as subtle as color because you can do so many things to it. First, black and white is never just that: It is also all the gradations of gray in between. And silver. And beiges. And so on. When you walk into a paint store and ask for black the clerk (after laughing at your naïveté) will hand you 50 color chips: jet black, deep-space black, Frederick's of Hollywood black, midnight blue, and so on. White has, if anything, even more variations, and gray is practically infinite.

Black and white is the color of glamour cinematography. The most glamorous icons of the screen, those actors who only require last names—Garbo, Bogart, Bacall, Gable, Dietrich—are most famously photographed in black and white.

And, as its name suggests, at least one whole film genre is defined in large part by the fact that it was shot in black and white: film noir.

Nitrate Stock
Silver nitrate stock, on which much silent film was shot, produced a shimmering, other-worldly quality, seeming to set the screen on fire. Unfortunately, because it was rather unstable, it could also set the projector, the booth, and the theater on fire, so that its projection is now illegal in all but a handful of theaters in the country specially equipped to contain a blaze.

Black and White Today
Directors still sometimes opt for black and white to make a political and/or aesthetic point. Street Scene (1989)—a film by an African American director—restages Charlie Chaplin's The Kid (1921) in the contemporary inner city, suggesting both that inner-city denizens have at least the humanity we grant to the little tramp, and that nostalgizing poverty is cruelly absurd.

Some films are shot in black and white as a kind of homage to earlier cinema genres. Steve Martin's Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982) pays tribute to film noir, while Movie Movie (1978) and Young Frankenstein (1974) fondly recall the 1930s backstage musical and the 1940s horror film.

The Golden Era: Color Classic
Especially for the Technicolor technicians, the principal job was to figure out how to make color film acceptable to an audience and an industry that was at first hesitant about the technology. Some actors, for example, did not think they photographed as glamorously in Technicolor as in black and white. Still, after the box office successes of films like 1939's Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz (we wonder whether Shirley Temple is still kicking herself for not taking on the role of Dorothy), studio execs came to realize that adding color to a film would measurably increase its box-office appeal. So this expensive technology was used for high-profile prestige pictures, like the Errol Flynn vehicle, The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), which cost $2 million, an amazing price tag for the Great Depression years.

Black and Blue: Using All the Crayons in the Box
Some directors have been thinking outside the Crayola box, mixing panchromatic and color stock in the same film. Early on the decision was in part economic: Technicolor was incredibly expensive. But even early on the decision to mix it up could be motivated by plot and theme as much as by economics. The most famous example is of course The Wizard of Oz (1939). Monotonous Kansas is also monochromatic. But when, after her tornado-driven house landed in Kansas, Dorothy opened the front door and found herself in a Technicolor Oz, the 1939 audience shared her sense of wonder at their introduction to a prismatically colorful new world.

Self-Reflexivity and Other Kinds of Color
Though we shall visit the notion of self-reflexivity in some detail, it is worth noting that sometimes black-and-white clips appear in color films in order to suggest that these films have a connection to the history of film. Old horror films play on television in the background while the new horror takes place in Halloween's foreground (1978). Gilda (1946) plays on the monitor of a video store while a disturbing love relationship takes place in the foreground of The Fisher King (1991). Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters desperately dance during the Great Depression against the very ironic backdrop of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing on film, in Pennies from Heaven (1981).

Sometimes black and white is used in a color film as a way of establishing a biographical past for a principal character. This technique is used in Mishima (1985) and Zelig (1983). Sometimes it establishes a point of view, as for a gay man looking down desiringly on a group of schoolboys in If … (1969). Other older experiments with black and white and color include Portrait of Jennie (1948) and Eisenstein's great experiment with ideologically mixing it up in Ivan the Terrible (Ivan Grozny, Russia, 1944).

Read more: 
Andrei Tarkovsky speaks about color vs. black-and-white cinema
Indie Auteurs Delve into Black & White

Monday, September 5, 2016

The Art of Comedy: Humor in Film

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Comedy Films are "make 'em laugh" films designed to elicit laughter from the audience. Comedies are light-hearted dramas, crafted to amuse, entertain, and provoke enjoyment. The comedy genre humorously exaggerates the situation, the language, action, and characters. Comedies observe the deficiencies, foibles, and frustrations of life, providing merriment and a momentary escape from day-to-day life. They usually have happy endings, although the humor may have a serious or pessimistic side. 

Types of Comedies:
Comedies usually come in two general formats: comedian-led (with well-timed gags, jokes, or sketches) and situation-comedies that are told within a narrative. Both comedy elements may appear together and/or overlap. Comedy hybrids commonly exist with other major genres, such as musical-comedy, horror-comedy, and comedy-thriller. Comedies have also been classified in various subgenres, such as romantic comedy, crime/caper comedy, sports comedy, teen or coming-of-age comedy, social-class comedy, military comedy, fish-out-of-water comedy, and gross-out comedy. There are also many different kinds, types, or forms of comedy, including:

  • Slapstick
Slapstick was predominant in the earliest silent films, since they didn't need sound to be effective, and they were popular with non-English speaking audiences in metropolitan areas. The term slapstick was taken from the wooden sticks that clowns slapped together to promote audience applause. 

This is primitive and universal comedy with broad, aggressive, physical, and visual action, including harmless or painless cruelty and violence, horseplay, and often vulgar sight gags (e.g., a custard pie in the face, collapsing houses, a fall in the ocean, a loss of trousers or skirts, runaway crashing cars, people chases, etc). Slapstick often required exquisite timing and well-honed performance skills. It was typical of the films of Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, W. C. Fields, The Three Stooges, the stunts of Harold Lloyd in Safety Last (1923), and Mack Sennett's silent era shorts (for example, the Keystone Kops). Slapstick evolved and was reborn in the screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s (see further below).

More recent feature film examples include the comedic mad chase for treasure film by many top comedy stars in Stanley Kramer's It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), and French actor/director Jacques Tati's mostly dialogue-free Mr. Hulot's Holiday (1953, Fr.), and Jim Carrey in Ace Ventura, Pet Detective (1993) and The Mask (1994).

The Blake Edwards series of Pink Panther films with Peter Sellers as bumbling Inspector Clouseau (especially in the second film of the series, A Shot in the Dark (1964) with Herbert Lom as Clouseau's slow-burning boss and Burt Kwouk as his valet and martial arts judo-specialist) are also great examples. Cartoons are the quintessential form of slapstick, i.e., the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote, and others. 

  • Deadpan
This form of comedy was best exemplified by the expression-less face of stoic comic hero Buster Keaton. 
  • Verbal comedy
This was classically typified by the cruel verbal wit of W. C. Fields, the sexual innuendo of Mae West, or the verbal absurdity of dialogues in the Marx Brothers films, or later by the self-effacing, thoughtful humor of Woody Allen's literate comedies. 
  • Screwball
Screwball comedies, a sub-genre of romantic comedy films, was predominant from the mid-1930s to the mid-1940s. The word 'screwball' denotes lunacy, craziness, eccentricity, ridiculousness, and erratic behavior. 

These films combine farce, slapstick, and the witty dialogue of more sophisticated films. In general, they are light-hearted, frothy, often sophisticated, romantic stories, commonly focusing on a battle of the sexes in which both co-protagonists try to outwit or outmaneuver each other. They usually include visual gags (with some slapstick), wacky characters, identity reversals (or cross-dressing), a fast-paced improbable plot, and rapid-fire, wise-cracking dialogue and one-liners reflecting sexual tensions and conflicts in the blossoming of a relationship (or the patching up of a marriage) for an attractive couple with on-going, antagonistic differences (such as in The Awful Truth (1937)). Some of the stars often present in screwball comedies included Katharine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck, Claudette Colbert, Jean Arthur, Irene Dunne, Myrna Loy, Ginger Rogers, Cary Grant, William Powell, and Carole Lombard.
The couple is often a fairly eccentric, but well-to-do female interested in romance and a generally passive, emasculated, or weak male who resists romance, such as in Bringing Up Baby (1938), or a sexually-frustrated, humiliated male who is thwarted in romance, as in Howard Hawks' farce I Was a Male War Bride (1949). The zany but glamorous characters often have contradictory desires for individual identity and for union in a romance under the most unorthodox, insane or implausible circumstances (such as in Preston Sturges' classic screwball comedy and battle of the sexes  The Lady Eve (1941)). However, after a twisting and turning plot, romantic love usually triumphs in the end. (See more discussion later in this section.)
  • Black or Dark Comedy
These are dark, sarcastic, humorous, or sardonic stories that help us examine otherwise ignored darker serious, pessimistic subjects such as war, death, or illness. Two of the greatest black comedies ever made include the following: Stanley Kubrick's Cold War classic satire from a script by co-writer Terry Southern,  Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) that spoofed the insanity of political and military institutions with Peter Sellers in a triple role (as a Nazi scientist, a British major, and the US President), and Robert Altman's M*A*S*H (1970), an irreverent, anti-war black comedy set during the Korean War. Another more recent classic black comedy was the Coen Brothers' violent and quirky story Fargo (1996) about a pregnant Midwestern police chief (Oscar-winning Frances McDormand) who solves a 'perfect crime' that went seriously wrong.

Hal Ashby's eccentric cult film Harold and Maude (1972) was an oddball love story and dark comedy about a suicidal 19 year-old (Bud Cort) and a quirky, widowed octogenarian (Ruth Gordon), with a great soundtrack score populated with songs by Cat Stevens. (See examples of other feature films below for more.) John Huston's satirical black comedy Prizzi's Honor (1985) starred Jack Nicholson as dimwitted Mafia hit man Charley Partanna for the East Coast Prizzi family, who fell in love with West Coaster Irene Walker (Kathleen Turner) - another mob's hitwoman. The film included an Oscar-winning performance from Anjelica Huston as the vengeful granddaughter of Nicholson's Don. Tim Burton's dark and imaginative haunted house comedy Beetlejuice (1988) featured Michael Keaton as the title character in a dream house occupied by newlywed spirits Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin. The shocking but watchable first film of Peter Berg, Very Bad Things (1998) told the dark and humorous story of a 'bachelor' weekend in Las Vegas gone bad for five guys when their hired stripper/prostitute was accidentally killed.

  • Parody or Spoof - also Satire, Lampoon and Farce
These specific types of comedy (also called put-ons, send-ups, charades, lampoons, take-offs, jests, mockumentaries, etc.) are usually a humorous or anarchic take-off that ridicules, impersonates, punctures, scoffs at, and/or imitates (mimics) the style, conventions, formulas, characters (by caricature), or motifs of a serious work, film, performer, or genre, including:
  • the Marx Brothers' satiric anti-war masterpiece  Duck Soup (1933) with anarchic humor
  • the western spoof Cat Ballou (1965)
  • Woody Allen's Japanese monster film parody What's Up, Tiger Lily? (1966)
  • the 'genre' films of Mel Brooks (the quasi-western Blazing Saddles (1974), the quasi-horror film Young Frankenstein (1974), the inventive Hitchcock spoof/rip-off High Anxiety (1977), the Star Wars (1977) spoof Spaceballs (1987), and his swashbuckler send-up Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993))
  • Herbert Ross' Play It Again, Sam (1972) poked fun at Woody Allen as an insecure nebbish-hero who worshipped an imaginary, trench-coated, archetypal tough-guy detective (a la Humphrey Bogart)
  • Silver Streak (1976) - a comic thriller parody of Alfred Hitchcock's 'train' pictures, with Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor (their best film together) onboard the Silver Streak from LA to Chicago
  • Neil Simon's scripts for The Cheap Detective (1978) and Murder By Death (1978) spoofed Agatha Christie detective films
  • Jim Abrahams' and the Zuckers' revolutionary comedy Airplane! (1980) - a sophomoric parody of the earlier disaster series of Airport (1970) films and the original Zero Hour (1957); their The Naked Gun (1988) series parodied TV cop shows, and Top Secret! (1984) ridiculed Cold War agents and espionage spy films (and Elvis Presley films); Abrahams' military comedy Hot Shots! (1991) was a genre parody/spoof of Top Gun (1986), while Hot Shots! Part Deux (1993) parodied Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985)
  • in The Freshman (1990), Marlon Brando (as Carmine Sabatini) poked fun - with brilliant parody - at his own characterization of Don Corleone in The Godfather (1972)
  • Carl Reiner's Fatal Instinct (1993) spoofed suspense thrillers and murder mysteries such as Basic Instinct (1992)
  • Gene Quintano's Loaded Weapon I (1993) made fun of Lethal Weapon (1987) as well as The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Basic Instinct (1992), and Wayne's World (1992)
  • the Austin Powers films (1997, 1999, 2002) - parodies of the James Bond 007 films
  • the Scream films (1996, 1997, 2000) - spoofs of slasher horror films
  • Barry Sonnenfeld's Men in Black (1997) - a sci-fi comedy farce based on a comic book series that poked fun at alien invasion films, with Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith as government agents (with camaraderie similar to Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in the Lethal Weapon series) battling about 1500 Earth-dwelling, other-worldly extra-terrestrials in the New York area; a sequel appeared in 2002
  • Galaxy Quest (1999), about the cast (including Tim Allen, Alan Rickman, and Sigourney Weaver) of a 70s sci-fi TV series in reruns, this was a parody of sci-fi TV, Star Trek itself, and cultish "Trekkie" activities
  • director Nora Ephron's romantic comedy You've Got Mail (1998) updated and paid homage to Ernst Lubitsch's classic The Shop Around the Corner (1940), with leads Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in their third teaming (after their previous hit with Ephron - Sleepless in Seattle (1993)), replacing James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan as feuding-by-email Manhattan bookstore owners
  • Last Action Hero (1993) - a spoof of action films
This category may also include these widely diverse forms of satire - usually displayed as political or social commentary, for example:
  • Billy Wilder's sex farce The Seven Year Itch (1955) - a parody of a conventional Hollywood romance
  • Terry Gilliam's tasteless but hilarious Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (1983) and The Life of Brian (1979) - an irreverent parody of religious films
  • the witty Monty Pythonesque A Fish Called Wanda (1988), co-scripted by veteran John Cleese (with the character name of Archie Leach - named after Cary Grant's real name) and directed by veteran Charles Crichton (whose film career was responsible for such classics as The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)); it was both an acclaimed black comedy and caper farce about a search for a stolen cache of diamonds; the title referred to both a fish and the name of Jamie Lee Curtis' character
  • writer/director Albert Brooks' satirical Real Life (1979) - a pseudo-documentary on 'real' small-town suburban family life
  • Woody Allen's pseudo-documentary Zelig (1983) with its use of vintage historical clips to portray a human cipher or chameleon in various time periods
  • Rob Reiner's largely-improvised show-biz mockumentary This is Spinal Tap (1984) about a non-existent British heavy metal rock band on tour of third-rate venues
  • the serious-comedic political satire of Tim Robbins' pseudo-documentary (or fictional mockumentary) Bob Roberts (1992) about running for Senatorial office; Tanner '88 (1988) was a similar made-for-TV mini-series about a fictional Presidential candidate (Michael Murphy)
  • Steven Soderbergh's Schizopolis (1996) - an irreverent, bizarre, and absurdist media satire
  • Christopher Guest's Waiting for Guffman (1996) - an intelligent satirical parody (and mockumentary) about small-town 'drama queen' hopefuls
In many comedies, there is much overlap with the category of 'farce', since the term has now been broadened and extended (from the early part of the 20th century) beyond its origins and roots in silent film (and early talkies) comedy (W.C. Fields, Charlie Chaplin, The Marx Brothers, and Buster Keaton to name a few), and the works of The Three Stooges. Now, farces - and farcical elements in films, may include fairly outrageous plots, unlikely and absurd circumstances, frantic-paced action, mistaken identities, a major transgression or hidden secret (i.e., often an extra-marital infidelity) sometimes based upon a misunderstanding, and lots of verbal humor, absurdities and physical slapstick, often with a concluding chase scene of some kind. Recently, farces have widened their scope by deliberately and satirically mocking established genres and standard filmic conventions themselves:
  • Classic screwball comedies and other classic comedies: such as Trouble in Paradise (1932), Twentieth Century (1934), My Man Godfrey (1936), His Girl Friday (1940), To Be or Not to Be (1942), The More the Merrier (1943), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), Born Yesterday (1950), The Seven Year Itch (1955), Some Like It Hot (1959), etc.
  • UK comedies: the British Ealing Studios comedies (The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)), the grotesque commentaries found in the Monty Python films, Tom Jones (1963)
  • Kubrick's classic, black comedy: Dr. Strangelove: Or... (1964)
  • Other comedies in series: the Hope/Crosby 'Road' movies, the Peter Sellers/Inspector Clouseau Pink Panther films, the Mel Brooks comedies (beginning with The Producers (1968) and including such films as Spaceballs (1987), Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993), and Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)), the Abrahams/Zucker/Zucker films such as Airplane! (1980) and Hot Shots! (1991), some Woody Allen films (i.e., Love and Death (1975)), Carl Reiner/Steve Martin films: (i.e., The Jerk (1979), The Man with Two Brains (1983), and All of Me (1984)), the Mr. Bean movies (i.e., Bean (1997))
  • Other recent examples: What's New, Pussycat (1965), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), Murder by Death (1976), Tootsie (1982), Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987), Peter Bogdanovich's Noises Off... (1992), There's Something About Mary (1998), Waking Ned (1998), South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut (1999), Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004), The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005), The Simpsons Movie (2007), etc.
Earliest Comedy:
Cinematic comedy can be considered the oldest film genre (and one of the most prolific and popular). Comedy was ideal for the early silent films, as it was dependent on visual action and physical humor rather than sound. Slapstick, one of the earliest forms of comedy, poked fun at farcical situations of physical mishap and indignity, usually in pratfalls, practical jokes, accidents, acrobatic death-defying stunts, water soakings, or wild chase scenes with trains and cars. [Burlesque is another form of early comedy, characterized by unrefined and broad humor, designed to produce ridicule.] Pioneers in the early days of silent cinema and film-making, the Lumiere Brothers, included a short comedy film in their very first public screening in 1895 titled Watering the Gardener or "The Sprinkler Sprinkled" (L'Arroseur Arrose). Its predictable subject matter included a man with a garden watering hose who was tricked into being soaked by a prankster child.
Keystone Studios:
It took until 1912 for American comedy to emerge. The first comics were trained by performing in the circus, in burlesque, vaudeville (music halls), or pantomime. Film entrepreneur Mack Sennett, soon nicknamed "The King of Comedy" and "The Master of Slapstick Comedy," formed the Keystone Company (and Studios) in 1912 - it soon was the leading producer of slapstick and comic characters.
The major hallmark of Sennett's career work was inventive, visual, improvised comedy displayed in short silent films that moved frantically. His early short comedies featured wild slapstick chase finales, visual gags and stunts, and speedy, zany action. The action appeared all the more frantic and frenzied by his use of a filming technique whereby he shot the pictures at a slow camera speed, and then accelerated the frames in the projector during playback. He often cast vaudevillian, burlesque, and circus performers in his films. Those with exaggerated or grotesque looks (obese, cross-eyed, lanky, leering, pop-eyed, etc.) were chosen to add to the unreality of the situations. His most popular pictures involved his bumbling comedy policemen, the Keystone Cops. There would be flying pies, bricks, careening vehicles with people hanging off, crashes, and other dangerous-looking stunts. Cinema's first custard-pie-in-the-face was in Sennett's silent film comedy A Noise From the Deep (1913), in which comedian Mabel Normand, a farmgirl threw a pie into the kisser of obese farmhand Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle.  

Eccentric comic artists (and character actors) included Arbuckle, Edgar Kennedy, Mabel Normand, zany and cross-eyed Ben Turpin, Mack Swain, Billy Bevan, Charley Chase and Chester Conklin. [Even Carole Lombard began her career at Keystone.] Charlie Chaplin got his start at Keystone (his first film was the short Making a Living (1914)) and made numerous short films from 1914-1919 (for Keystone, Essanay, Mutual, and First National), until his first full-length feature that he directed, wrote, and acted in, The Kid (1921) - see below.
The Silent Era Clowns
Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle:
Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle was one of the earliest silent film comedians (as well as director and screenwriter). He started out with the Selig Polyscope Company in 1909 (his first film was Ben's Kid (1909)), and then went onto Universal Pictures in 1913 where he appeared in several of Mack Sennett's Keystone Comedies films, noted for fast-paced chase sequences and 'pie-in-the-face' segments. Arbuckle was the first of the silent comedians to direct his own films, starting with Barnyard Flirtations (1914). His teaming with Mabel Normand at Keystone, in a series of "Fatty and Mabel" films, were lucrative for the studio.
In 1917, Arbuckle formed his own production company ("Comique Film Corporation") with producer Joseph Schenck which afforded more creative control, hiring Buster Keaton to star in his first film The Butcher Boy (1917). He used his 'fatness' as part of his sight gags, and his slightly-vulgar but sweet and playful character became extremely popular with younger audiences. By 1919, he had secured at $3 million/3-year contract with Paramount Pictures - the first multi-year, multi-million dollar deal for a Hollywood studio. It is little mentioned that Arbuckle mentored and aided Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin as they entered the film business, before his own downfall in the early 1920s. He was accused of the rape and murder of young starlet Virginia Rappe in San Francisco in a widely-publicized case -- and thoroughly chastised by Hearst's 'trial-by newspaper' (with soaring sales) and public condemnation. His career was over, although he was eventually fully acquitted of the act after three trials.
Charlie Chaplin:
Charlie Chaplin, a silent actor and pantomimist, was recruited to Keystone from an English variety act, and became Sennett's most important discovery. Chaplin made 35 short Keystone films for Mack Sennett in 1914. In Chaplin's second picture, the 11-minute Kid Auto Races in Venice (1914), he invented his immortal, trademark Little Tramp character as he attends a 'baby-cart' race in Venice, California. His first masterpiece, The Tramp (1915), produced by the Essanay Company in Chicago, showed the early development of the character, known for his baggy pants, bowler hat, walking cane, funny stride, and oversized shoes. Chaplin had appeared in Sennett's feature-length Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914) and produced two dozen two-reelers for Mutual, including such classics as The Rink (1916), The Floorwalker (1916), The Pawnshop (1916), The Cure (1917), The Immigrant (1917) and Easy Street (1917).
Chaplin made two masterpieces in the 1920s: his first full-length starring feature that he directed was The Kid (1921) pairing him with young Jackie Coogan. It was followed by another full-length comedy titled The Gold Rush (1925), Chaplin's best silent film with segments of poetic miming and classic slapstick. Even though the silent era was ending and the sound era had arrived, Chaplin turned out more "silent" features: the exquisite City Lights (1931), and his satire on the machine-age,  Modern Times (1936). Chaplin resisted the coming of the talkies until his first talking picture The Great Dictator (1940) and other talkies including Limelight (1952) - a film with silent comedian Buster Keaton as co-star. 
Buster Keaton:
One of the great silent clowns of the early comedic period was Buster Keaton, known for acrobatic visual gags, physical action, and for his deadpan, unsmiling, expression-less "stoneface." (His first name was a nickname given to him by Harry Houdini after he fell down some steps.) Keaton was first a vaudeville performer, performing and partnering quite often with former Keystone star and mentor Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. He entered the profession of film-making in 1917 at the age of twenty-one as a supporting player, in his film debut The Butcher Boy (1917). Then, he started his own production company and became an actor in his own production unit in many excellent short films (usually two-reelers) from 1920-1923, including One Week (1920), Neighbors (1920), The High Sign (1921), The Boat (1921), The Haunted House (1921), The Playhouse (1921), The Paleface (1921), Hard Luck (1921), and The Frozen North (1922), but none as a repeating character. 
A few years later, he also starred in a number of feature-length silents, his first being The Three Ages (1923). Among his best features were Our Hospitality (1923), The Navigator (1924), Sherlock, Jr. (1924), Go West (1925), Seven Chances (1925), and Battling Butler (1926). His most-acclaimed feature-length production was the fast-paced Civil War adventure tale of a railroad engine called  The General (1927), which he soon followed with College (1927) and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928). The latter film is known for one of the most suicidal stunts ever filmed - a falling wall with only a top-floor open window to save him from being flattened. [One of his last film appearances was as one of the 'waxworks' friends who plays bridge with silent film star Gloria Swanson in  Sunset Boulevard (1950).]
Harold Lloyd:
Harold Lloyd, a popular silent clown, has been dubbed the 'third' genius or master of silent comedy - after Chaplin and Keaton. [An actor/producer, he actually outgrossed his better-known counterparts, by retaining ownership of his films and their profits.] Like them, Lloyd also spent some time in the early years with Mack Sennett, became known for realistic, daredevil stunts, and for his bespectacled, neat, innocent, noble-hearted, 'average Joe' characters. From 1915-1921, he produced a number of short films for Keystone and for major comedy producer Hal Roach, playing the character of Willie Work (debuting in his first starring film Just Nuts (1915) as a Chaplin-like character) and Lonesome Luke (first appearing in Lonesome Luke, Social Gangster (1915)). 
Lloyd graduated to full-length features playing the part of a normal Everyman (or "Glasses Character") or "Boy" - which debuted in the short Look Out Below (1919). His last short was Never Weaken (1921). He became most identified with this 'boy'-next-door character (normally named Harold) with his most famous trademark - horn-rimmed glasses. His most-remembered film, the feature-length Safety Last (1923), featured his perilous, memorable climb up a tall skyscraper's face that climaxed with his hanging off a giant clock. Lloyd's career lasted 34 years with over 200 comedies (mostly short subject featurettes, but including 11 silent features and 7 sound features). One of Lloyd's other greatest films was also his most successful, The Freshman (1925), in which he portrayed a college underclassman (Harold 'Speedy' Lamb) determined to redeem himself - on the football field. Other well-known films included Grandma's Boy (1922), Why Worry? (1923), Girl Shy (1924), The Kid Brother (1927), Speedy (1928) (his final silent film) and Movie Crazy (1932). His last film was released in 1947 - director Preston Sturges' The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947), retitled Mad Wednesday by co-producer Howard Hughes, re-edited and released by RKO in 1950.
Harry Langdon:
Another early comic performer was baby-faced, innocent, timid Harry Langdon, who also worked at Keystone. He experienced only a brief period of fame during the end of the silent era, although he could be placed in the same league as his three other comic contemporaries: Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd. His best feature film in a short four-year film career, The Strong Man (1926), was director Frank Capra's feature-film debut. The film predated Chaplin's  City Lights (1931) by several years with its plot of a meek man in love with a blind woman. Langdon also starred in two other hits: Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926) and Capra's Long Pants (1927) in which Langdon played his typical simple-minded, man/child role. 
Larry Semon:
Another popular, second-level slapstick comedian in the silent era who made hundreds of two-reel shorts from 1916-1924 for Vitagraph and for the B-picture company, the Chadwick Pictures Corporation, was the charming, white-faced, smiling, and clownish Larry Semon. He began film work at Vitagraph in 1915 as comedy short gag writer and then as director in 1916. His first feature-length film was also his best known and most influential work - a remake and adaptation of Baum's The Wizard of Oz (1925), with Semon serving as both director and star - as the Scarecrow opposite Oliver Hardy (of the comic team) who played the Tin Woodsman. The film's release was highly publicized, but the public didn't like it - and it was essentially a failed effort. Afterwards, he took a supporting role in Josef Von Sternberg's classic film Underworld (1927), and his last film, after filing for bankruptcy, was A Simple Sap (1928), released posthumously after his prematurely-short life.
The 30s Clowns
With the coming of sound, slapstick went into a bit of a decline and the flexible freedom of the earliest comedians was curtailed. Comedy was transformed, however, and began to be refined as an art form, with new themes, elements, and written characterizations, and comedic humor was now being derived from clever dialogue. Visual comedy remained strong throughout the 1930s, but now witty dialogue and verbal comedy were added. Some of the great comedians or teams, including Laurel and Hardy, the Three Stooges, the Marx Brothers, and Abbott and Costello, or individuals such as radio star Jack Benny, Eddie Cantor, Joe E. Brown, W. C. Fields, and Mae West emerged. Hal Roach's company was responsible for other ground-breaking comedy shorts during the 1930s, including the popular "Our Gang" series that lasted until 1944. 
Laurel and Hardy:
One of the greatest and most-beloved of the comedy teams was the one of British-born Stan Laurel and the fat-faced Oliver Hardy, first purposely teamed together toward the close of the silent era by producer Hal Roach in the slapstick film Slipping Wives (1926). They had first met, by accident, during the filming of Lucky Dog in 1917. Director Leo McCarey at Hal Roach Studios recognized their potential as a team and capitalized on their contrasting, disparate physical differences (Stan: the "thin" man and Oliver: the "fat" one - each with derby hats) and classic gestures (bewildered head-scratching, tie-twiddling, eye-blinking and baby-like weeping). 
Although Laurel and Hardy worked together as a successful comedy team for 20 years (and were precursors of the 50s team Abbott and Costello), they were not equal partners - Stan considered himself the creative force and "brains" of the team. Their dozens of short films and twenty-seven feature-length films were produced over three decades (the 20s to the 40s), including such film classics as Sons of the Desert (1933) - arguably their best film, Way Out West (1937), The Flying Deuces (1939), and A Chump At Oxford (1940). One of their funniest bits involved getting a piano up a set of stairs in The Music Box (1932). Laurel and Hardy's last Hollywood film was The Bullfighters (1945), capping a teamed career of almost twenty years. They were among the few actors who successfully made the transition from silents to talkies.
Plots of their hilarious films used situational mishaps or incidents to trigger chaos and personal jeopardy, usually with the dignified, superior-acting, pompous Ollie trying to succeed and boast, only to be frustrated, exasperated and sabotaged by the simple-mindedness, childishness and brainlessness of Stan. Audiences were amused by their endearing qualities of naivete, clumsiness, innocence, and stupidity as they sunk deeper and deeper into trouble, chaos, and self-destruction. 
The Marx Brothers:
Once talkies emerged, the most famous and popular comedy team was the zany foursome of the Marx Brothers. They were the only real-life sibling comedy group in Hollywood history:
  • the witty, wise-cracking, ad-libbing, absurdly-punning, caustic, fast-talking Groucho (famous for his crouched walk, mustache, cigar, round glasses and leering eyes)
  • piano-playing, broken Italian-accented Chico, famous for distorted logic
  • the mischievous mute-pantomimist/harpist Harpo (with an old taxi horn and numerous harp solos), known for chasing girls
  • the straight-man Zeppo (who left the other brothers in 1933 after his performance in  Duck Soup (1933), his fifth film)
Their comedy was a mixture of slapstick, sophisticated verbal comedy (often absurd and risque), zany anarchistic disrespect for the establishment, nonsensical action, and inspired buffoonery. 
After almost two decades in vaudeville together, the brothers finally received widespread attention in their screen debut, The Cocoanuts (1929), filmed at Paramount's East Coast studios. Next were major box-office and critical successes - the film version of their Broadway play, Animal Crackers (1930), Horse Feathers (1932) and their last film for Paramount - the political, anti-war satire/spoof  Duck Soup (1933)
The Marx Brothers further developed their unique brand of absurdist, hilarious, slapstick comedy with a change to MGM Studios in the mid-30s. MGM's productions of  A Night at the Opera (1935) with its memorable scenes of the stateroom and a legal contract, and A Day at the Races (1937) were made at the height of their popularity. A frequent romantic foil for Groucho who appeared in a number of their films was Margaret Dumont, a memorable character actress. The film career of the Marx Brothers extended from 1929 to 1949. Marx Brothers Groucho, Chico and Harpo made their final film appearance as a team in Love Happy (1949), with a young 23 year-old Marilyn Monroe. Later on, Groucho became a star as an early TV game-show host. 

W. C. Fields:
W. C. Fields is known for his recognizable raspy voice, pool cue, oversized bulbous nose and nasal drawl, stove-pipe hat, flask of 100-proof whiskey and love of drink, caustic verbal wit and wisecracks, and irritable disdain for small children, animals, upper-class snobs and bullying wives. The vaudeville star was an inspired comedian, a master of visual gags, double-takes, casual asides and pantomime. His film debut was in the silent one-reel comedy short Pool Sharks (1915), in which he showed off his pool-playing ability, and his first sound feature film was Warners' (and First National's) pre-code musical comedy Her Majesty, Love (1931). Fields usually wrote his own scripts and produced such classics for Paramount as It's A Gift (1934) and possibly his best film, The Bank Dick (1940), in which he credited himself as screenwriter Mahatma Kane Jeeves. Another wacky contribution was Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941) (written with the pseudonym of Otis Criblecoblis) - his last starring role in a feature-length film. Fields was a natural while portraying a hen-pecked husband, a phony, an eccentric, a windbag, a non-conformist schemer, or a pompous charlatan. 
Mae West:
Another contemporary, wise-cracking, drawling performer was the bold, blowsy and flirtatious Mae West who enjoyed titillating and shocking audiences with double entendre dialogue, sexual innuendo and a desire for sex, especially before the advent of the Hays Production Code. [One of her typical lines was: "Listen, when women go wrong, men go right after them."] Mae West starred in her own films, notably as a buxom burlesque queen and singer in an 1890s saloon in She Done Him Wrong (1933), and as a circus floozy in I'm No Angel (1933). She also appeared with Fields in their only film together: My Little Chickadee (1940).